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A CEO’s Confession

By Tim Ruggiero

Some years ago Patrick Le Lay, the CEO of the French TV channel TF1, offered up a shockingly candid assessment of his company's business:

Let's be realistic. TF1's job is to help Coca-Cola shift product...For an advertising message to get through, the viewer's brain has to be receptive to it. It's the aim of our programs to make that brain receptive, that is to say, to entertain it and relax it, to prepare it between two messages. What we sell to Coca-Cola is receptive human brain time...Nothing is more difficult than obtaining that receptiveness. [1]

The comment caused quite a stir and in many quarters was swiftly denounced. “What struck people in the Le Lay case," Jean Baudrillard observed, "was the barefaced cheek of the statement, which fascinated even those who condemned it.”

What is it about Le Lay’s statement that leaves us admiring it even while taking note of the arrogance and cynicism?

Perhaps, first, it evinces an honesty that is all about impossible to find anymore. It is not only that we have become inured to the prevarications of those in positions of authority; it is also that just about everyone nowadays dresses up his behavior in the most respectable clothing, puts the best, most positive face on everything that is done. Yet here was Le Lay, speaking to the public as though he were addressing members of his own marketing team, completely oblivious to how his statement looked and sounded.

A long-held view is that truth is likelier to be revealed from those outside the corridors of power than from those inside them. Those not party to the affairs of government or business are assumed to enjoy an objectivity and honesty that the "doers" themselves lack. “Insiders conceal and cover up the truth; outsiders excavate it and expose it to the light of day.” Here the matter was reversed: not only an insider, but the chief executive officer himself, expressed a truth that most critics of culture and media would be hard pressed to match.

“The real scandal,” Baudrillard noted, “doesn’t lie so much in technocratic cynicism as in the breaking of a rule of our social and political game, which says that the corruption is on one side and the protest against it on the other. If the corrupt no longer respect this protocol, if they lay out their hands for all to see, without even doing us the courtesy of hypocrisy, then the ritual mechanism of critical condemnation is taken from us…Le Lay is stealing from us the only power we have left; he is stealing condemnation!” [2]

He is also employing a negative discourse, or the beginnings of one, and setting it against the façade of a bright and happy late-modern culture – a culture that Baudrillard elsewhere describes as “banalized and technized, carefully shielded from self-questioning.” [3] If Le Lay’s offhandedness is jarring, it is because it is a reminder of just how far over the years cultural discourse has wandered from the terrain of revelatory criticism, of a searching self-honesty. This, perhaps, is why many found his statement “reckless” or “irresponsible”: it was too blunt an admission of the disdain that a TV executive feels for the viewing public, and by extension, that a member of the elite feels for the faceless rabble. And not only this, but an open acknowledgement of how Machiavellian the insiders of the game really are.

It is this expression of the negative that has recently become alien to us, and which must be retrieved and preserved if the affairs of social life are to be seen with lucidity. If “the negative” should appear in the form of an offhanded remark by a complacent executive, then so much the better. Rather than react furiously, critics might ask how they can up the ante on it – that is, come up with a form of expression even more revelatory and antinomic, something that sets the forces of le mal back a pace or two. [4]


1. Quoted in Jean Baudrillard, Carnival and Cannibal (London: Seagull Books, 2010), pp.57-58.

2. Baudrillard, p. 59.

3. The countenance of contemporary culture is sunny and upbeat – the implication being that the global marketplace delivers happiness and good things to people. “The spectacle presents itself as an enormous, indisputable and inaccessible positivity,” Guy Debord wrote. “It says nothing more than ‘what appears is good; what is good appears.’" See Positivity.  

4. Baudrillard thought the social system had become so hegemonic that it could devour every form of protest and opposition. This would be the state of things “in which the system has snaffled all the mechanisms of simulation, parody, irony and self-derision…the whole of the negative, and with it, critical thought, leaving the latter only the ghost of the truth.” (Ibid., p.55).

October 15, 2014

(Tim Ruggiero is the editor of Philosophical Society.com. Online since 2001, the web site has been referenced in over a dozen books and in numerous periodicals. In 2012 it earned a mention on Cambridge University’s "Ideas for Wider Reading" list.)

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